If you attend a local Peak Oil activist group and look closely , you're likely to see some of the same faces you would have seen in 1999 at a Y2K activist group.
Why is this? Do some people just bounce from doomsday to doomsday, hoping their end-of-the-world predictions will finally come true?
Not really. It's that Y2K led many people to realize (as others already had) that our global and national societies are extremely complex. That the infrastructure that enables us to move information, money, goods, food, fuel and other necessities over vast distances is itself not as solid and foolproof as we might think.
Prior to the beginning of the new millennium, many thousands of people around the world pushed governments and corporations to do everything they could do to fix the Y2K "problem". The problem was simple—a two digit computer data field for the year which couldn't deal with the change from the 1900s to the 2000s. The solution was equally simple: change the two-digit field to a four-digit field so that, for example, "41" became "1941".
While the solution was simple, the enormity of making the simple change to hundreds and hundreds of millions of lines of software code in systems all over the world was staggering. But, in most cases, it was done.
Two Digits? Big Deal Why did Y2K activists get so excited about a little two-digit data entry field? Because of their research. Or at least because of their research into other people's research, because the panic—and probably the successful repair—of the Y2K problem would likely never have happened without the mass communication and information sharing capabilities of the Internet.
Their research made them aware of a sort of technological ecology, the interdependence of complex systems all over the planet, systems on which we rely for information exchange, financial transactions, and the movement of energy and goods from town to town, state to state, and country to country.
The Y2K folks realized that a little computer error could corrupt or bring down a computer system, and that system, whether dead or just dirty, could corrupt or bring down another computer system—even a "clean" one—with which it conducted transactions. And that those two computer systems could...well, as someone once said about history, it's "just one damn thing after another."
The activists also discovered that there is a very delicate dance between computer systems around the planet and the artifacts—both real and virtual—which they help exchange. And that participants in that dance include the factories, offices and consumers who use those artifacts, whether they be dollars, euros, yen, barrels of oil, watts of electricity, bags of cement, bytes of information, vegetables, cartons of milk, bullets, or video games and Barbie dolls.
Several factors make this global dance both fascinating and perilous. One is that goods used by consumers in industrial societies can—and often have to—travel many thousands of miles from producer to home or supermarket shelf—the so-called "3,000 mile Caesar salad".
The other factor is that great cost-reducing achievement of inventory-free companies—the "Just In Time" process. Factories and supermarkets no longer need mammoth warehouses to store parts and goods as they await their appearance on the assembly line or supermarket shelf. We now have "rolling warehouses". Inventory is constantly on the road, traveling in huge tractor-trailers from port or manufacturer to the location where it's needed, arriving Just In Time for sale or use. Just In Time could not happen without global communication, scheduling and inventory-tracking, all requiring complex computer systems.
So Y2K activists understood that our societal circulatory and nervous systems are, in reality, based upon a thin and fragile network of intricate actions and relationships. And they believed that it would not take much to screw it up. The immediate threat that they saw was Y2K, but many of them also noticed other threats on the not-so-distant horizon. One of them was Peak Oil.
Peak Oil Peak Oil (see www.drydipstick.com) is usually spelled with initial caps to make it look more sensational. That's hardly necessary, but we'll do it to keep with tradition. Peak Oil was low on the radar in 1999, but Y2Kers had sensitive antenna—many would say too sensitive—and Peak Oil fit right in with their paranoia (only they preferred to call it sensible caution) about interdependence, sustainability, and complex systems.
Peak Oil simply meant that oil resources on the planet were finite and that there would come a point in time when one day less oil would be extracted than on the previous day. And the following day even less. And so on, no matter how much exploration was done, no matter how efficient the new extraction technologies developed. There would come a point when less and less oil was available for the industrialized societies of the planet. Oil production would have peaked.
This would be alarming in itself because the needs of already-industrialized countries are increasing—dramatically. Think growing populations. Think ever-increasing demand for power plants. Think SUVs. Think the production of more and more stuff.
But an even greater threat (more objectively--competition) were those previously underdeveloped countries that were now leapfrogging into the 21st century and demanding consumer equity with the long-developed—and perhaps over-developed—countries. Think one billion Indians. Think 1.3 billion Chinese. (Even more useful, think a combined 2.3 billion Indians and Chinese with a relatively small, but by their very existence quite significant, number of nuclear weapons.)
Consumers in the west continued to act as if petroleum resources were unlimited and indeed, in the United States at least, they were assured by their government that resources were unlimited, thanks to the grace of God and the tax-deductible, off-shore wisdom of the oil companies.
However, the underlying concern of Y2Kers was that all resources are finite, and that local communities, whether Gotham City or Hog Hollow, were too dependent on outside resources, and too little dependent on their own resources.
Local Self-Sufficiency Y2Kers had always dreamed of local sustainability. They wanted local communities to be able to provide their own basic foods, their own basic energy needs, their own basic essentials of life. Projects were proposed for the home, the neighborhood, the city. They involved home and neighborhood gardens; home, neighborhood and city power generation, and neighborhood and city-wide cooperation. In short, their goal was do everything locally that's possible to do locally, and to save the national and global activities for only those things that absolutely have to be done on national and global levels. Yes, they really did want everyone to "Think (and Communicate) Globally, Act Locally."
Activists saw Y2K as a golden opportunity for communities to become self-aware, to realize the vulnerability of long-supply chains, and to jump at the chance to work with their neighbors to create close-knit, cooperative communities that could survive on their own. Not with exuberant riches, perhaps, but the operative word here was survival. That and the very human feeling of satisfaction that comes from cooperating successfully with other humans.
Local community sustainability was a nice dream, but the golden opportunity, with few exceptions, turned to lead. For most people and places, Y2K turned out to be a non-event, and Y2Kers slunk off—albeit often with heads held high, a physically challenging but not inappropriate position—many to endure the ridicule of their communities, the media, and, frequently, their families, including the brother-in-law who had said that Y2Kers were crackpots and nothing was ever going to bring down the good old U.S. of A.
Unfortunately, Peak Oil, economic collapse, climatic change and a variety of other significant factors are all in a position to disrupt the normal flow of goods and commerce. It is essential that responsibility devolve and decentralize as national governments in most large countries are too far from the problems that need to be dealt with. Former Y2Kers have now joined with new Peak Oil activists to push their communities to become sustainable and self-sufficient. Will it work? Did it work? You be the judge.